The anthropology of the British litterbug

A determination to destroy beauty lies behind the ghastly British love affair with rubbish dumping

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A good walk ruined: Littering is both antisocial and illegal, but perhaps that’s the point (©Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images)

Britain is the litter bin of Europe: there is nowhere else like it, at least among countries with which we might like to compare ourselves. The best that can be said of Britain’s litterers is that they are very thorough: they litter not just the cities and towns, but seek out even the most remote beauty-spots, where seemingly there is no traffic, and leave their traces there. It is as if their first impulse on arrival anywhere were to disembarrass themselves of the bottles, cans, plastic wrappings of the refreshments that they have consumed en route.

A half of Britons admit to dropping litter, and a third of drivers do so. Surveys of men aged 18 to 25 suggest that now many believe that dropping litter is “cool”, a sign of a relaxed way of life. Among farmers, 19 out of 20 say that they have cleared away dumped rubbish. A quarter of smokers do not consider cigarette butts to be litter in the first place. Some 180,000 sacks of rubbish are cleared from the sides of roads every day, without any visible impact on the prevalence of litter as a whole. Most of the rubbish dropped takes years to degrade.   

What does all this litter signify? Archaeologists sift the detritus of past civilisations in order to reconstruct something of the daily life of its citizens, and I try to reconstruct the lives and mentality of my fellow-countrymen by what they leave behind them. If I am right in my surmises, the conclusions are not
encouraging.

I have been interested in litter for quite a time, both its content and distribution, ever since I used to walk every day between the hospital in which I worked in the morning and the prison in which I worked in the afternoon, a distance of a few hundred yards. This was an area in which many, perhaps most, children hardly ever ate a meal with another member of their household. They were, rather, domestic hunter-gatherers, from an early age searchers in the fridge for prepared foods, living in homes in which the microwave was the entire batterie de cuisine. When they grew up they ate, if not principally at least very often, on the street: for an Englishman’s street is now his dining room. Meals for many in our country are not social occasions but occasions for solipsists.

Their diet was not healthy. It consisted of snacks, fast food, sweet canned drinks and alcohol. It scarcely came as a surprise to me to learn that the British were among the fattest people in the world. The inhabitants of the area seemed to regard bushes as convenient repositories for their empty cans and polystyrene containers of hamburgers and fried chicken once they had finished with them. Householders did not even clear up the litter in their own front gardens.

But the problem of litter is not confined to areas such as this, very far from it. From time to time I go litter-picking in and around the town in which I live. I find it not unpleasant, and rewarding inasmuch as you can immediately see the results of your efforts. I have discovered that it takes on average about an hour to clear four hundred yards of grass verge of even a country road of its litter.

The overwhelming majority of the litter is the detritus of refreshments taken in cars and thrown out of the windows of passing vehicles. For the sheer quantities disposed of in this fashion you might suppose that British drivers were like those insectivorous shrews that to survive must consume their own body weight every 24 hours. (British medical students now bring plastic bottles of water with them into examination rooms, as if global warming had already turned Britain into the Sahara.) One does sometimes come across other things, such as used condoms and defunct mobile phones, but these are only a small proportion of what is discarded.

But I must mention the shreds—sometimes the very large shreds—of dirty polythene that hang from the trees, and one of the most curious phenomena of all, namely the carefully tied plastic bags of household rubbish that are then attached to the low branches of trees, to hang there like some kind of poisonous fruit. It is curious because it takes more effort to dispose of rubbish in this way than in the more regular manner. While I am on the subject of the peculiar phenomena relating to litter, I have several times noticed people with litter in their hand approach a litter bin and then drop the litter not in the bin, but by it, as if they knew that litter bins had something to do with litter but could not make the final leap of the imagination as to what it was. In lay-bys, moreover, a notice warning people that littering attracts a heavy fine is sure to be unusually heavily littered, as a man who walks into a pub with No Fear tattooed on the side of his neck is sure to attract violent attention.

Littering cannot be the activity of a tiny number of malevolent people. Even an army of a thousand litterers dedicated exclusively to the task could not spread even a small fraction of Britain’s litter. The billions and billions of pieces can only be the result of the efforts of an enormous number of people: a minority of the whole population, perhaps, but by no means a small one, probably numbered in the millions.

What is going through the mind of the litterers? Are they merely thoughtless, like cows relieving themselves in a field? Is it that they do not see, or that they do not care about, the results of what they do? It is certainly true that many parts of the country are now so littered that another piece will make no difference, will not even be noticeable, but that does not explain why the country has become so littered in the
first place. Besides, those of us who do not litter refrain from doing so even where it would make no difference. 

It is difficult to ask litterers why they do it because they are not often caught in the act. One does occasionally see litter flying out of a car window, but rarely by comparison with the amount that there is by the side of the road, and one cannot stop a car from which litter has been thrown in order to ask the culprit what was going through his mind as he threw it. Nevertheless, one can conclude that litterers know that what they are doing is wrong because it is for the most part a clandestine activity, and few people would readily own up to it. Littering proves that the old idea that no one does wrong knowingly is false. Millions of people do wrong knowingly, every day and repeatedly.

On the assumption that to litter is not an unconscious action, millions of decisions a day are taken to perform it. The question then is why? Why do so many people (their precise number must remain a matter of speculation) regularly do what they know to be antisocial, frowned upon by their fellow citizens, and usually illegal? After all, it is not so very difficult to refrain from littering.

The conclusion then must be that litterers act as they do not in spite of the anti-social and illegal nature of littering, but because of its anti-social and illegal nature. It is an expression of hatred towards the world as they find it, and even towards beauty itself. Beauty offers them a disturbing contrast with the ugliness of their lives, an ugliness which is part chosen by and part imposed on them (most British towns and cities have been as thoroughly uglified in the last 50 years as the countryside has been littered, and there is no escaping ugliness). In conditions of inescapable ugliness, beauty itself is a highly disturbing phenomenon and anything beautiful must be brought down to the level of the ugly. It is the contrast that is painful and it is far easier to destroy beauty than to remove the ugliness against which we are completely impotent. If you can’t beat it, join it.

There is another question about litter, however. Why has it been allowed to accumulate to a point at which it is difficult to conceive how it could ever be cleared up, short of a national crusade, backed by members of the royal family, such as the one launched by the Daily Mail? Why has the litter not been cleared up as it was spread? We have, after all, a giant apparatus of public administration that interferes with, or at least intervenes in, practically every aspect of our lives. Is cleaning up litter so difficult a task that it is intellectually beyond it to arrange for it?

Presumably, then, little priority is given to it. Our public administration acts on the reverse of the broken-windows theory, namely that small problems should be left to solve themselves until larger problems, such as social injustice and the wickedness of the human heart as manifested in inequality, have been solved. The resultant slovenliness is to be seen everywhere. If you observe British roadworks, for example, you notice that they are performed without pride in the result, making a mess in the meanwhile that you do not see elsewhere in Europe. The contractors leave the rusting frames of temporary road signs, and the sandbags that hold them down, behind them on the verges after they have finished their work, as well as other detritus, and no one can be bothered or thinks it his job to tell them to clear up after themselves. The temporary road signs are often set at crazy angles because it is the easier thing to do than to set them at the perpendicular; and in general one has the impression that the work is not taken seriously. It is at best a regrettable necessity, an imposition on the time of those doing it.

Even now, however, the littering of our country is not quite a fatality. I recently drove from Shropshire to Yorkshire, passing though Staffordshire and Derbyshire. All these counties were unbelievably filthy (unbelievably, that is, to someone not entirely resigned to the condition of England). I already knew Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and Warwickshire to be in the same case, as well as many other counties. But as soon as I reached Yorkshire, things markedly improved. Whether this was because Yorkshiremen still have some pride in their county and therefore drop less litter in the first place, or whether Yorkshire councils are more attentive to their elementary duties than elsewhere I do not know. But after the disgusting filthiness of even so beautiful a county as Shropshire, it came as a relief.

There is, however, good news for patriotic Britons. I also drove recently from Calais to Paris, and the motorways which not very long ago were impeccable from the litter point of view have suddenly deteriorated, and while they had not yet reached British levels of filth, if something is not done quickly, they will soon catch up. My heart swelled with pride at the prospect.